“The Sleep,” originally known by its French name “Le sommeil,” is a characteristic William Bouguereau painting, noted for its deep imagery, combined with finesse and refinement. The painting also delivers a strong message. William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905) was the most famous French artist of his times and established a niche in realistic genre painting, drawing heavily from ancient Greek and Roman mythology, and also Christian legends, making modern interpretations of these themes. He also made heavy use of the female body as an art form.
"The Sleep" is telling of Bouguereau's excellence in figure painting. The painting depicts an infant sleeping in the lap of his mother, with an elder child by their side. The mother gesticulates to the elder child to be silent, as the infant is sleeping. The family depicted in the scene is poor, as evident from the bare-bones and sombre background, but from the painting one understands happiness does not require material wealth. The painting illustrates the joy and peace that may be found in everyday family life, and especially in motherhood.
William Bouguereau was a master of neoclassicism, and was deeply influenced by Catholicism. True to form, "The Sleep" also depicts a strong neoclassical tone, as well as an underlying religious lore. The painting was executed in 1864, when Bouguereau was already well-established as an artist par excellence, and at the peak of his artistic powers.
William Bouguereau was extremely popular in France and other countries of Europe, and also in the United States of America. Art connoisseurs and wealthy patrons regarded him highly, and lapped up his paintings for huge sums of money. He received many top honours, including Premier Prix de Rome, Officer, Knight, and Commander of Legion of Honour, Grand Medal of Honour, and more, over the years. In all, he executed 822 works of art during his lifetime, and most of them are renowned and well accepted, making him the most successful salon painter of his times.